The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

The Real Poetry Question

As my first contribution to this blog, I thought I should aim high and try to answer the biggest poetry question of all: What exactly is poetry?

Haven’t people been asking that question and answering it—or trying to—for thousands of years? For as long as there has been poetry? Of course, that’s part of the difficulty in answering the question; poetry has been so many different things to so many people over the course of its history that it is impossible to construct a monolithic, one-size-fits-all definition of it that will satisfy everyone. This is what Samuel Johnson meant when he wrote, “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.” You think you’re telling me what poetry is, but actually you’re telling me who you are.

Still, the question gets asked. A lot. Especially if you are, like me, someone who identifies as a poet. Billy Collins, one of my mentors, got so tired of being asked to explain the difference between poetry and prose that he started saying, “Poetry is a bird and prose is a potato.” An answer like that usually provides enough time to get away to the bar and order another drink.

I could answer people by saying, “No one can agree on what poetry is.” But I decided on a different strategy years ago, which resulted in an obsessive search for all the definitions of poetry that I could find. And here’s what I’ve discovered: While it’s true that not everyone can agree on what poetry is, you can find definitions that are similar because they point to the same quality of language that the authors thought was essential to poetry. Emily Dickinson, who famously wrote “Tell all truth, but tell it slant” would probably agree with John Ciardi, who believed that poetry “lies its way to the truth.” If somehow then James Branch Cabell walked into the room and pronounced that poetry is “man’s rebellion against being what he is,” Ciardi and Dickinson would probably nod in polite disagreement and go sit together at the bar.

So here are over a 100 famous definitions of poetry that I have collected over the years and loosely sorted into groups based on the quality of language that the definition appears to be highlighting. Some of the definitions might belong in more than one group. Some you might think I have completely misunderstood. I might be missing your favorite! If you buy the next round of ale, I would love to debate this with you!

                        —Taylor Mali, New York City 2013

Poetry is Condensed, Distilled, Essential, and Simplifying.

1)    “Poetry is a language pared down to its essentials.” Ezra Pound

2)    “Each memorable verse of a true poet has two or three times the written content.” Alfred de Musset

3)    “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” Charles Bukowski

4)    “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Rita Dove

5)    “For poetry is the blossom and 
the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, 
human passions, emotions, language.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

6)    “Poetry is life distilled.” Gwendolyn Brooks

Poetry is Fragile, Elusive, and can only be expressed in one way.

7)    “Poetry is that which is lost in translation.” Robert Frost

8)    “The moment of change is the only poem.” Adrienne Rich

9)    ‎”What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable. . . I may try to explain it or represent it in other terms, but then some element of its life will always be missing.” Mark Doty

10) “Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you have lost the whole thing.”
 W.S. Merwin

11) “Poetry is of so subtle a spirit, that in the pouring out of one language into another it will evaporate.”
John Denham

12) “Good poetry could not have been otherwise written than it is. The first time you hear it, it sounds rather as if copied out of some invisible tablet in the Eternal mind than as if arbitrarily composed by the poet.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

13) “To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie—True Poems flee.” Emily Dickinson

14) “Poetry: The best words in the best order.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is Truthful, but not necessarily factual.

15) “Tell all truth, but tell it slant.” Emily Dickinson

16) “Poetry is truth. But it is not necessarily the whole truth. And it is certainly not nothing but the truth. It’s more like the truth, the half truth, and other stuff that goes well with truth.” Taylor Mali

17) “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling…” Muriel Rukeyser

18) “An imaginary garden with real toads.” Marianne Moore

19) “Poetry lies its way to truth.” John Ciardi

20) “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”
 Plato

21) “A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could or would happen either probably or inevitably …. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.”
 Aristotle

22) “Poets have a genius for lying and an adoration for the truth, and it may be that the driving impulse of every great poet is to maintain the dynamic interplay of these two passions.” Denise Levertov

Poetry comes from nothingness, namelessness, or silence.

23) “Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them.”
Charles Simic

24) “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” John Cage

25) “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word clogged reality by creating silences around things.” Stephen Mallarme

26) “Poetry makes nothing happen. It survives in the valley of its saying.” Maxine Kumin

27) “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” Mary Oliver

28) “. . . it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.” Audre Lourde

29) “There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.” John Cage

30) “Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows.” Edmund Burke

Poetry is Alive, Active, a Moment of Being.

31) “A poem should not mean, but be.” Archibald MacLeish

32) “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Paul Valéry

33) “Poetry is not the record of an event: it is an event.
” Robert Lowell

34) “I don’t look at poetry as closed works. I feel 
they’re going on all the time in my head and 
I occasionally snip off a length.”
 John Ashbery

35) “Poetry is being, not doing.”
 e. e. cummings

36) “The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.”
 Henry Miller

37) “Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination.” Ishmael Reed

Poetry is the Common Made New & the New Made Common.

38) “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, 
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.
” Percy Bysshe Shelley

39) “. . . The poet 
speaks not of peculiar and personal things, but of what in himself is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men.”
 Richard Wilbur

40) “The two most engaging powers of an author are to 
make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”
 Samuel Johnson

41) “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” Rainer Maria Rilke

42) “[Poetry] must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet 
says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.” W. H. Auden

43) “Reality only reveals itself when it is illuminated by a ray of poetry.”
 Georges Braque

44) “The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.” Robert Penn Warren

Poetry is Ineffable, Other Worldly, Indicative of Insanity, Indefinable.

45) “Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, 
without a certain unsoundness of mind.” Thomas Babington Macaulay

46) “Poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.” 
 Carl Sandburg

47) “Language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction,
something that can not be said.”
 E. A. Robinson

48) “All poets are mad.” Robert Burton

49) “Defining poetry is like grasping at the wind—once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.” from an article on About.com

50) “Poetry is a bird. Prose is a potato.” Billy Collins

51) “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Carl Sandburg

52) “For me, poetry is an impish attempt to paint the colour of the wind.” Maxwell Bodenheim

53) “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” William Shakespeare

Poetry is Liberating, Therapeutic, Catalytic, Necessary, Healing.

54) “Poetry gives you permission to feel.”
James Autry

55) “Of our conflicts with others we make rhetoric; of our conflicts with ourselves we make poetry.” William Butler Yeats

56) “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet 
believes to be interior and personal which the 
reader recognizes as his own.” Salvatore Quasimodo

57) “Poetry allows one to speak with a power
that is not granted by our culture.” Linda McCarriston

58) “What is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self understanding?
It is the deepest part of an autobiography.” Robert Penn Warren

59) “I write poetry in order to live more fully.” Judith Rodriguez

60) “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” Muriel Rukeyser

61) “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” John F. Kennedy

62) “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” Novalis

Poetry is Musical, Structured, Sonic, possessing Rhythmic Beauty.

63) “Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls.”
 Voltaire

64) “Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.” 
 Dennis Gabor

65) “Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”
 Edgar Allan Poe

66) “If a poem is written well, it was written with the poet’s voice and for a voice. Reading a poem silently instead of saying a 
poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music
and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument.”
Robert Pinsky

67) “As a tool of cognition, poetry beats any existing form of analysis (a) because it pares down our reality to its linguistic essentials, whose interplay, be it clash or fusion, yields epiphany or revelation, and (b) because it exploits the rhythmic and euphonic properties of the language that in themselves are revelatory.”
Joseph Brodsky

68) “The art which uses words as both speech and song to reveal
the realities that the senses record, the feelings salute, the mind perceives, and the shaping imagination orders.” Babettes Deutsch

Poetry is Simple, Arbitrary, really just a Label.

69) “Empowered words that…you recognize instantly as being some form of subjective truth with an objective reality, because someone realized it… and then you call it ‘poetry’ later.” Allen Ginsberg

70) “A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses.” Jean Cocteau

71) “You have to write one poem that everyone agrees is a poem. After that, if you say it’s a poem, it’s a poem.” Jack McCarthy

72) “Poetry is writing that does not go to the edge of the paper.” Thomas S. Lillard

73) “The gap between verse and poetry is enormous. Between good poetry and good prose the gap is much narrower.” Michael Longley

74) “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.” Robert Fitzgerald

Poetry is Observant, Descriptivist, a Celebration of the Imperfect & Human.

75) “The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.” Jean Cocteau

76) “Poetry is the deification of reality.” Edith Sitwell

77) “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Leonard Cohen

78) “Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement.” Christopher Fry

79) “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” Muriel Rukeyser

80) “Poetry is a way of rescuing the world from oblivion by the practice of attention.” Roger Housden

81) “A poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Poetry is Important, Heightened, and Formal.

82) “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” Joseph Roux

83) “You arrive at truth through poetry; 
I arrive at poetry through truth.” Joubert

84) “We can only approach the gods through poetry.” Thomas Moore

85) “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

86) “The language of crisis.” R. D. Laing

87) “Poetry is the suggestion, by the imagination, 
of noble grounds for noble emotions.” John Ruskin

88) “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.” William Wordsworth

Poetry is Playful, Delightful, merely Joyous or Beautiful.

89) “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting 
to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the 
barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and 
why they go away.”
Carl Sandburg

90) “Not philosophy, after all, not humanity, just the sheer joyous power of song, is the primal thing in poetry.” Max Beerbohm

91) “Speech framed … to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.” Gerard Manley Hopkins

92) “A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.” Peggy Noonan

93) “Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.” William Blissett

94) “[Poetry is . . .] a kind of ingenious nonsense.” Issac Barrow

95) “Delight is the chief if not the only end of poetry; instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poetry only instructs as it delights.” John Dryden

Poetry is Nostalgic.

96) “Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life.” William Hazlitt

97) “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” William Wordsworth

98) “Poetry … should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” 
John Keats

99) “A poem begins with a lump in the throat.” Robert Frost

Poetry is Natural, Born of the Elements of this World.

100)       “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Robert Frost

101)       “I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill 
and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.”
Pablo Neruda

102)       “Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.”
 Denis Diderot

103)       “There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” Gustave Flaubert

Poetry is Extraordinary Language about Ordinary Things.

104)       “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the N th power.
” Paul Engle

105)       ‎”The language beneath the language: That is poetry.” Andrea Pacione

106)       “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be 
understood by everyone, something that no one ever 
knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.” Paul Dirac

Poetry is Communicative in a way that is New, Authentic, Based in Feeling.

107)       “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. 
 T.S. Eliot

108)       “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actuality emotions at all.” T.S. Eliot

109)       “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is a speaking picture.” Simonides

110)       “Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.” Eli Khamarov

111)       “Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen.” Fleur Adcock

112)       “The office of poetry is not to make us think accurately, but feel truly.” Frederick William Robertson

113)       “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out . . .. Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” A.E. Housman

Poetry is a type of union.

114)       “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” 
 Robert Frost

115)       “Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with beauty by calling imagination to the help of reason.” Samuel Johnson

116)       “Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, 
with a dash of the dictionary.” 
 Kahlil Gibran

117)       “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” Carl Sandburg

118)       “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” Thomas Gray

Poetry is does more than one thing at a time, sometimes contradictory things.

119)       “Good poems always pull in two different directions.” Jane Hirschfield

120)       “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” 
 Robert Frost

121)       “Poets are people who are not content to say only one thing at a time.” Billy Collins

122)       “Poetry is the language in which man . . . says heaven and earth in one word.” Christopher Fry

Poetry is a type of mirror.

123)       “As to the pure mind all things are pure, 
so to the poetic mind all things are poetical.”
 Henry W. Longfellow

124)       “You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some with you.”
Jobber

125)       “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

126)       “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” Walt Whitman

Poetry is Carpe Diem, a Rejection of what is.

127)       “Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, 
is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, 
in a sense, against actuality.” James Joyce

128)       “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Salman Rushdie

129)       “Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is.” James Branch Cabell

130)       “Poetry has nothing to do with intellect: it is, in fact, a violent and irreconcilable enemy to the intellect. It’s purpose is not to establish facts, but evade and deny them.” H. L. Mencken

Poetry is Bold, Journey of Discovery.

131)       “Those who are not very concerned with art want poems or pictures to record for them something they already know as one might want a picture of a place he loves.” George Oppen

132)       “Poetry is … the physical enactment of a process
of knowing by means of language.” Mark Doty

133)       “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” Robert Frost

134)       “‘Therefore’ is a word the poet must not know.” André Gide

135)       “Everyone has a talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.” Erica Jong

Poetry is a Great Effort, an Achievement, a Miraculous Epiphany.

136)       “Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do.” Stephen Spender

137)       “A poem is an instant of lucidity in which the entire organism participates.” Charles Simic

138)       “With this pen I take in hand my selves
and with these dead disciples I will grapple.
Though rain curses the window let the poem be made.” Anne Sexton

139)       “A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in
thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” Randall Jarrell

140)       “The poem is the point at which our strength gave out.” Richard Rosen

141)       “[Poetry is . . ] the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.” T. S. Eliot

Poetry is Figurative.

142)       “Metaphor is the whole of poetry.” Robert Frost

143)       “Poetry is simply made of metaphor . . . Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.” Robert Frost.

144)       “I love metaphor. It provides two loaves where there seems to be one. Sometimes it throws in a load of fish.” Bernard Malamud

Poetry Exists in the body, Produces a Corporeal Reaction.

145)       “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Emily Dickinson

146)       “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” Robert Frost

147)       “Poetry’s a mere drug, sir.” George Farquhar

148)       “Poetry is devil’s wine.” St. Augustine

Other quotations about poetry that are either not really definitions or not easily sortable into my categories:

149)       We tend to be so bombarded with information, and we move so
 quickly, that there is a tendency to treat everything on the surface 
level and process things quickly. This is antithetical to the kind of
 openness and perception you have to have to be receptive to poetry.
 Rita Dove

150)       A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
 Paul Valery

151)       Write drunk, revise sober.
 Miller Williams

152)       Poetry is a rich, full bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails, 
the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales, 
the sweet pea that has run wild …
 Boris Pasternak

153)       When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

154)       “I write first drafts with only the good angel on my shoulder, the voice
that approves of everything I write. This voice doesn’t ask questions
like, Is this good? Is this a poem? Are you a poet? I keep this voice
at a distance, letting only the good angel whisper to me: Trust yourself.
You can’t worry a poem into existence.”
 Georgia Heard

155)       We learn to treasure words that people call us; 
we learn to live by words that hurt. We cannot toss 
them aside, so in time they become our dignity.
 Mark Doty

156)       “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving.” a headstone in a Long Island graveyard

21 comments on “The Real Poetry Question

    • anonymous
      June 6, 2013

      Poetry is the fabric
      that binds the words
      that by themselves
      fail to describe.

      Poetry is a force
      easily strong enough to
      lift you up
      carry your heart
      elevate your mind
      and ease your soul.
      Strong enough to equally
      do the exact opposite as well.

      Poetry is the result
      of carefully selecting words
      more precisely than
      you normally would,
      and then more concisely still.

      Poetry is what you end up with
      if you follow its recipe with you
      as the main ingredient.

      Poetry is a prayer without the burden of religion.

      Poetry is a melody that forms its own music

  1. kiwiskan
    June 4, 2013

    I have just swum up to the surface for air…

  2. The Running Son
    June 4, 2013

    An amazing list, and organization of them.

  3. Dave
    June 4, 2013

    Thank you for this. Wonderful readings and rememberings. Nice take. Poetry is. That is all.

  4. Apostle Tshego
    June 5, 2013

    Wow now I get a clue on what the definition of poetry is, compared to what I’ve been hearing years ago I now understand. How did you come up to the knowledge of this quiz?

  5. Daniel Budiarto
    June 5, 2013

    Great list. Thanks for the roundup.

  6. anonymous
    June 5, 2013

    Relative to the subject, a stonecold summation seems ever so inadequate. So here’s a question @TaylorMali

    Which definition(s) do you currently like best and why?
    Which of these definitions is most descriptive of your poetry in your opinion?

    Here’s another:
    Poetry extends the meaning of words beyond their mere definition and thereby it extends language beyond its mere meaning. It is thus that she can extend pass the mind and reach the soul.

    • Taylor Mali
      June 5, 2013

      My favorite definition of poetry in the list above is from Hopkins: “Language framed . . . ” But what I tell my students is that for me, poetry is writing that is “honest, musical, and artful,” keeping in mind that honest does not equal “factual,” musical can mean much more than “rhyming,” and artful has a secondary definition that means “tricky.”

      Sent from my iPhone

      • anonymous
        June 5, 2013

        Seems reasonable enough.
        From that description I read
        “honest” as written from the heart,
        “musical” as having cadence/flow,
        and “artful” as worthy of attention (in the sense that a second thought may be required).

        I’ve never associated “musical” with “rhyme” though.

        • Taylor Mali
          June 5, 2013

          Ways you can add “music” to your writing include rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration, caesura, “flow” as you say, and of course ACTUAL SINGING, which not enough people do in performance.

          Sent from my iPhone

  7. educationmattersforall
    June 5, 2013

    As I was reading #16 I immediately thought, this is the one I would choose, then I said “Oh, it’s you, then we laughed for a moment, and I said I never knew…”

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  15. Jefferson Carter
    July 25, 2014

    This column is pointless. For one thing, definitions of poetry won’t help you write a good poem. For another, all these definitions have a glaring weakness—they define poetry as something wondrous in itself, thus, ignoring the real issue: the quality of individual poems. Enlightened by any of these definitions, you could never say that’s BAD poetry.

    Collins’ bird/potato analogy is instructive: it suggests POETRY is intrinsically wonderful and prose is intrinsically dull. What bullshit! I don’t imagine many prose writers would agree with Billy’s facile comment. Prose is writing organized by paragraphs: its opposite is VERSE, writing organized by lines and stanzas. By distinguishing between the neutral noun “poetry” and the admiring adjective “poetic” and between the neutral noun “prose” and the derogatory adjective prosaic, columns like the above might offer some useful insights, such as James Joyce writes poetic prose, or this poet’s verse is too prosaic or administrators write prosaic prose or Yeats’ verse is poetic. A useful discussion could then ensue.

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